The Final Solution

How the Nazis planned and executed the systematic murder of European Jewry.

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The study of the Holocaust reveals the great potential for evil that exists alongside the potential for progress in the modern period. The following article, reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People published by Schocken Books, explores the ideology and the reality of the killing centers of the Second World War.

Historians of the Holocaust are divided into two schools: the "intentionalists" insist on the central role of Nazi ideology and believe that there was a carefully prepared plan for the extermination of European Jewry; the "functionalists" or "structuralists" by contrast, stress the chaotic nature of the Nazi system, a non-design reflected in their foreign and economic policies as well. According to the latter school, it was this inherent disorder rather than premeditated design that led, through a process of cumulative radical­ization, to the systematic extermination of European Jewry.

On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Head Office, convened all secretaries of state of the major German ministries to the Wannsee Conference. This conference is generally held to have been a major turning point, whereby the "final solution of the Jewish question" in Europe by "evacuation" to the East and by other "means" was decided upon. But in fact, the mass extermination of the Jews on an industrial scale, made possible by the creation of death camps, was launched prior to this notorious conference.

Prisoners at a concentration camp.
Credit: Yad Vashem.

Executions by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads,were abandoned for practical reasons. Although approximately 1.5 million Jews had been shot by the winter of 1941, the Nazis felt that the efficiency of this slow and cumbersome method left much to be desired. Moreover, they found it was bad for the sol­diers' morale. Himmler himself, commander of the SS and as such responsible for the annihilation of the Jews, was persuaded, after having witnessed such an execu­tion, that it badly affected the mental health of those carrying out the execution. The institutionalization of organized murder, founded on a division of labor and carried out in special installations expressly designed for this purpose, distanced the executioner from the victim, an indispensable psychological advantage in an enterprise of annihilation of such a huge scale.

The murder industry began in the Chelmno camp, built in December 1941. Work was carried out in special trucks, where the victims were asphyxiated by exhaust fumes, a method that had been tried before on those whose lives were deemed useless (the "Euthanasia Pro­gram"). From September 1939, about 100,000 "Aryan" Germans were assassinated in this manner, in what was named "Operation T4." Two years later, the personnel responsible for the "euthanasia" program were called upon to apply their expertise to murdering Jews. In the single camp of Chelmno, 150,000 human beings were gassed to death, most of them brought to the camp from annexed territories, the Warthegau district western Poland, and the Lodz Ghetto.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University